Good morning and Happy Groundhog Day! Today we are picking up in Oxford and as it’s also a Sunday, in place of attending a church service, we will visit Christ Church Cathedral.
Lovely spring flowers greet us at the entrance.
Christ Church is a joint foundation of the Oxford Diocese, which comprises the college, which we visited last time and the Cathedral, which also serves as the College Chapel.
At one time it was the smallest of the English Cathedrals, but during the 20th century, new cathedrals were created in Derby, Chelmsford, Birmingham and Leicester, in response to the tremendous expansion in population from the Industrial Revolution, which was centred in the new Victorian Industrial towns.
With its comparatively robust size of 16,413 square metres, Christ Church fell (or rose) to fifth place.
The current building was constructed in the late 12th century as the monastery church for a community of Augustinian Canons.
Though nothing remains of it, the Cathedral stands on the site of an ancient Saxon church, founded in the 8th century by St Frideswide, the Patron Saint of Oxford. They weren’t as fussy about building on top of graves back in the day: a Saxon cemetery lies under the cathedral cloister.
In 1180, following the completion of the new Cathedral (then known as St Frideswide’s Priory), the Archbishop of Canterbury transferred St. Frideswide’s remains into a shrine. Personally, I’ve always been a bit creeped out by this fixation on moving mouldering bits of corpses (formally called relics) from one location to another, but it was a very common practice back then. The bits made their way into the present shrine in 1289. The shrine attracted Pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages, including Catherine of Aragon, who, in 1518, came to pray for the birth of a healthy son. It didn’t do her much good, unfortunately.
As an aside, I’ve always wondered if Henry VIII’s first wife was Rh-negative, given that her first child, Mary, was born hale and hearty (and went on to become Bloody Mary, Queen of England). After Mary’s birth, Catherine of Aragon suffered miscarriage after miscarriage, resulting in her ultimate expulsion from King Henry VIII’s side through the divorce that rocked the foundations of the Catholic Church in England and ultimately brought about the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Regrettably, the shrine was bashed to bits in 1538 with the Reformation, leaving only some fragments of the platform to be recovered in the 18th century. Thus, while the Shrine of St Frideswide is described as the oldest monument in the Cathedral, in reality, only the platform on which the original Shrine rested remains, and the naturalistic foliage carvings were added during the medieval period.
Behind the shrine is the Victorian St. Frideswide Window by Edward Burne-Jones (more on him, later). The top panel shows a ship of souls carrying Frideswide to heaven and the flower-shaped windows below that show the Tree of Knowledge on the left (note the serpent) and the Tree of Life on the right.
The sixteen panels below depict scenes from the saint’s life. It’s busy, filled with an almost dizzying degree of detail. See if you can spot the signpost showing Oxford in panel 1, dogs in panel 6, sunflowers in panel 8, sleeping pigs in panel 9; and a toilet (of all things!!) in the background of the scene depicting St. Frideswide’s death in panel 16. Clearly some artistic license prevailed here, as the toilet reflects the mod cons of the Victorian date of the window and not Frideswide’s time. The Cathedral website suggests that inclusion of the sanitary porcelain was an acknowledgement of the company which helped finance the window’s creation. Really.
The panels are numbered vertically, starting at the top left-hand corner and finishing at the bottom right (the left panel is 1-4, second to left one is 5-8, and so on).
Using my nifty-swifty Apple Stylus and the Notability App, in the photo below I’ve circled in yellow the items mentioned. Don’t cheat, though! See if you can find them yourselves, first.
Not far away from St. Frideswide’s shrine is the Tomb of Lady Elizabeth Montacute, a wealthy patron of St. Frideswide’s Monastery. On the side of her tomb are depictions of several of her ten apparently over-achieving children, who comprised a Bishop (Simon of Ely, 1337‑45), an Earl, two Abbesses, and a Prioress. Imagine the Christmas Letters from that family!
I didn’t get a good photo of it myself, but below is a snap of The Watching Loft from the Cathedral’s website. It refers to the carved wooden structure looking down over both St. Frideswide’s Shrine and Lady Montacute’s tomb.
I did, however, manage to get a picture of the descriptive plaque. I couldn’t figure out what they were referring to at the time, but it’s now clear what I should have been on the lookout for.
I was probably too busy looking up, thinking it was some kind of actual loft (as in a hay barn, or a Minstrel’s gallery).
This is probably a good time to orient ourselves, courtesy of Project Gutenberg’s lengthy eBook, from which I screen-captured this floor plan. We started at the western entrance from Tom’s Quad and looked east through the Nave straight to the altar at the far end of the choir. We have worked our way up from there to the Lady Chapel and Latin Chapels to visit St. Frideswide and Lady Montacute.
Moving toward the North transept, we encounter the canopy over yet another tomb, that of Prior Alexander Sutton (c.1316), who was one of the priors of St Frideswide’s monastery. As you will note, it’s taken its share of bashing and sustained some damage.
A more complete picture of the tomb is presented courtesy of Gloria TV.
At the eastern end of the North Transept, we have the St. Michael’s Window. Fairly modern, by Clayton & Bell in 1870, it’s the Cathedral’s largest window. The Victorian stained glass shows the Archangel Michael leading his army of angels to defeat the devil, who is portrayed as a dragon beneath St Michael’s feet.
We now move south and pause in the aisle between the Lady Chapel and the Choir, and here we find the Jonah Window. It came to the Cathedral shortly after the appointment of Archbishop Laud as Chancellor of the University in 1630. A series of windows were commissioned from Flemish brothers Abraham and Bernard van Linge, to add beauty and colour to the cathedral. Extremely controversial in their day, many believed that such images were idolatrous distractions from true worship, and only the Jonah Window and three others survived the English Civil War. Sadly, most of the van Linge windows were smashed by a canon’s boot heels in 1651. Only the figure of Jonah is made of actual stained glass; the rest is painted glass, depicting the city of Ninevah in minute detail.
Let’s have a look at the organ. Though its innards are very new (1978-9) the case remains from the original Father Smith instrument dating from 1680, which was installed after the Restoration of the Monarchy with of Charles II. (Yes, I know we beheaded your father, but let’s let bygones be bygones, shall we? Please come back and be King). Along with murderous tendencies toward Monarchs, the Puritans hadn’t been much on music; choral singing and organs had been banished during the Parliamentary period.
Like many things at Christ Church, the organ has been shifted about a bit – no small undertaking. Its first home was across the west end of the Chancel, not an ideal location from an aesthetic viewpoint. In 1856, the screen and organ were moved to the South Transept, to visually open up the church, allowing a clear view from West to East. So far, so good.
Then in 1870, a new choir organ was added in a case designed “after the manner of Father Smith” (this means ersatz), followed by the organ’s second move in 1884 to the current location in the West End. The reason for the move was to better accommodate the increased number of students attending Christ Church in the 19th century. They were required to sit in the Chancel for College services each day. The new placement of the organ caused them to enter directly into the ‘liturgical’ Chancel rather than through the Nave, seen to be an advantage for the flow of traffic, one can only assume.
We now walk back through the tower to the aisle south of the choir.
It almost looks like a cafe, doesn’t it? “I’d like a medium latte, please, extra hot.”
At the eastern end is St. Catherine’s window, created by Edward Burne-Jones in 1878. An associate of William Morris, he was heavily involved in the rejuvenation of stained glass in England during the time George Gilbert Scott was busy rejuvenating cathedrals, a happy association. The face in the centre panel, of St. Catherine of Alexandria, is a portrait of Edith Liddell, whose sister was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. Small world, Oxford.
Walking back to the south transept we come to the juncture with the Lucy Chapel. Its most remarkable feature is the Becket Window, which you can see in the upper right of the photo below. It’s the oldest stained glass window in the Cathedral and dates from 1320.
Remember Thomas à Becket of Canterbury Cathedral fame? Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his untimely demise in 1170, his murder was the culmination of a quarrel with Henry II, King of England, over the rights and privileges of the Church. His subsequent martyrdom rendered Becket far more famous in death than he had been in life and a festering sore spot for Henry II.
The Kings Henry, in general, seem to have been a testy lot. Becket came to embody anyone who had a grievance with the crown, a point not overlooked by Henry VIII. Although Becket was long dead, in 1538 Henry VIII condemned him ordering all images and pictures of Becket to be destroyed. Miraculously the panel of glass at Christ Church survived because Becket’s head had craftily been replaced by a pear-shaped piece of clear glass. It took more than 400 years for Becket’s visage to be restored, and the 1981 replacement doesn’t attempt to be an accurate portrayal of Becket’s features. But it’s a face.
Fun facts: Great Tom the bell, and hence Tom Quad, take their names from Thomas à Becket. And the two black birds with red beaks and claws, called Cornish choughs, which appeared on Becket’s coat of arms also feature on the arms of Cardinal Wolsey (and hence the College) as well as on the 17th-century silver wands carried by the Cathedral Vergers. Thomas à Becket cast a long shadow.
The Becket window has had a peripatetic existence; the glass has been moved and returned at least twice that we know of. Its first foray was from the Lucy Chapel to the North Transept, only to be returned during the restoration in 1870-6. The second sojourn occurred during WW2 for protection against possible bombing during the Blitz. Happily, Oxford was never bombed during the war: some speculate that this is because Hitler had intended it to be his new capital. The glass was restored to the window of the Lucy Chapel in 1952 and so remains.
The plaque above sat at the base of the flowers on the prominent tomb in the pic below, that of the first Bishop of Oxford, Robert King.
Back out to the nave, we get ready to take our leave. But let’s pause for a minute and look up. Waaaay up to the incredible stone vaulted ceiling in the Chancel.
Created in 1500, it’s considered to be one of the finest examples of its type in any English cathedral. Hard to believe that’s made of stone, isn’t it?
A last look towards the altar and the magnificent Rose Window.
Thus winds up our tour. I didn’t mention at the outset that we were dodging parcels of school kids, all shouting and noisily shuffling paper, much to the dismay of a group of sound technicians setting up the chancel with equipment for the hearing impaired. You can just see one of the fine tripods in front of the altar in the picture above. I was extremely impressed with the care they were taking to calibrate the sound for the hearing-impaired members of the congregation, in spite of the cacophony of noise from the kids.
That’s a wrap!
I’m sharing this post with Between Naps on the Porch.